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Mike Sweeney: Eye On the Ball,Heart on God

The Phillies’ slugger talks to Fathers for Good about the playoffs and beyond.
By James Breig

In September 1995, 21-year-old Mike Sweeney stepped onto a major league baseball field to make his debut as a member of the Kansas City Royals. It was the beginning of a 16-year career that has seen the California native reach the highest levels of his sport.

On Oct. 8, 2010, Sweeney, now 37, debuted again – this time in his first post-season game as a pinch-hitter for the Philadelphia Phillies. In the second of the three-game series, he swatted a single that helped the team sweep the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Division Series and take a step toward the World Series.

In between those appearances, as a catcher, first baseman and designated hitter for the Royals, Seattle Mariners and Phillies, Sweeney has racked up a lifetime .297 batting average, clubbed 215 homers, drove in more than 900 RBIs, made five appearances in the All-Star game and built a reputation as one of the most outstanding players of his era. His best season may have been 2000, when he posted a .333 batting average, with 29 homers and 144 RBIs. In 2002, his .340 average was second-best in the American League.

Mika and Shara Sweeney, shown with their children, are involved in Catholic outreach programs.

While he is proud of his baseball achievements, Sweeney believes it is more important that he be known as a staunch Catholic who is committed to pro-life causes, and open about his faith and what it means to him and his family. His wife, Shara, is also from baseball stock. Her father, Jim Nettles, and her uncle, Graig Nettles, both played pro ball.

Sweeney told Fathers for Good that he was “very thankful to God” for the opportunity to appear in the post-season. It would not have happened without an early August trade that sent him from Seattle to Philly.

“The first thing we did upon hearing the news from Phillies’ general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. that I was traded to Philadelphia,” he said about his family, “was to hold hands and thank the good Lord. Being in this city with this group of amazing men is a dream come true.”

Although he has earned millions of dollars and great adulation during his sports career, Sweeney said that those rewards “do not mean a thing to me.” What is important, he continued, is being a member of a great team.

“It is a wonderful feeling to lock arms with 24 like-minded men to achieve one common goal,” he said about the Phillies. “That is what it is all about.”

But he sees the teamwork involved in capturing a World Series title as secondary to a far more important goal. “My hope is that I would lock arms with the faithful believers of this world and achieve the common goal of sharing with others the love that Jesus has for them so that we can bring as many with us to heaven as possible,” he added.
 
Sweeney’s spiritual focus influences his playing because “my faith is everything to me. If my ‘god’ was baseball, I would be miserable because I would never be satisfied with what the game could bring me.”

On the other hand, he continued, because “my God is Jesus Christ, I have peace and am content because God has given me everything I could ever need.”

While a World Series ring would please him, Sweeney said that he has a more far-ranging goal.

“Eternal life is my destiny,” he explained. “That is a gift of God’s grace, and it is my focus. As great as it is making it to the post-season, my true joy in life comes from my relationship with God through Jesus Christ, reading God’s Word and receiving the sacraments, especially the Eucharist.”

(To learn more about Mike Sweeney’s faith, visit www.mikesweeney.org. Read a New York Times blog post about Sweeney’s playoff push.)

James Breig is a veteran journalist for the Catholic press.